Here we are again. Late as usual. But with a much more comprehensive list than I could have mustered by the 31st of December. Trust me. 3 of the films on the list I only finally got a chance to see in the last week and the list is better for it.
As always, my mea culpa is that while I do my best to see as much as possible (80 theatrical screenings in the last 12 months, countless more at home), endeavor to seek out the best of the best, and try to maintain some semblance of journalistic integrity, there are some "must-sees" that inevitably slip through the proverbial cracks by the the time the calendar necessitates I make out this list. Off the top of my head, LEVIATHAN, WILD TALES, WINTER SLEEP, LISTEN UP PHILIP, MR. TURNER, CITZENFOUR, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, WE ARE THE BEST!, and STILL ALICE spring to mind as films still vying for my attention.
Nevertheless. I'm very proud of my list. I stand by it. I don't feel guilty having not included BOYHOOD or BIRDMAN (spoilers!). I had a blast putting it together (a week-long, soul-searching, hang-wringing endeavor I look forward to all year). And I hope you get something out of it besides ire.
Thanks for reading, guys.
10. THE DOUBLE
After having been left phlegmatic by SUBMARINE, Richard Ayoade’s twee, derivative, “Wes Anderson-lite” feature debut, I only bothered with his sophomore effort THE DOUBLE at the insistence of a friend whose opinion I highly respect. It turns out my friend was right and, as such, I have turned the corner of Mr. Ayoade. In what must certainly be considered a “definitive” Dostoyevsky adaptation (from one of his earliest novellas), Jesse Eisenberg plays the duel roles of Simon James and James Simon. Doppelgangers sparring for the respect of supervisor Wallace Shawn and the affections of co-worker Mia Wasikowska, Eisenberg and Eisenberg navigate an expressionistic nightmare properly reminiscent though never plagiaristic of Terry Gilliam’s seminal sci-fi BRAZIL. Ayoade’s instincts are spot-on for the film’s lean, mean, fat-free, 93 minute run time. He keeps the proceedings chugging with full-tilt, four-alarm, high-con, stylistic bravado while never sacrificing substance or allowing the whole thing to drown under quirk, à la SUBMARINE. And Eisenberg settles like a seasoned pro into the dual personas he perfected during in his star-making turn as Marck Zuckerberg in THE SOCIAL NETWORK- nebbish, aloof, ineffectual doofus one minute, brash, brilliant, motor-mouthed, borderline sociopath the next. This time the dual personas are literally sharing the screen and it’s electric to watch.
9. FORCE MAJEURE
Swedish filmmaking has long been regarded by its willingness to go dark, go bleak, and go painfully “human”, at least as compared to American cinema. But while Ruben Östlund’s exercise in familial meltdown, FORCE MAJEURE (retitled from the original “TURIST”) is certainly a product of its Scandinavian forebears; it also has a thematic agenda all its own. And what truly sets it apart is its wicked sense of humor and eagerness to play with expectation on both sides of the screen. The cinema of 2014 was consistently fascinated and concerned with gender politics and issues of femininity (GONE GIRL, THE DISSAPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY, UNDER THE SKIN, OBVIOUS CHILD, etc.). But in the category of masculinity generally and emasculation specifically, no other film last year (with the possible exception of THE ONE I LOVE) grappled with the inherent conundrums of the male psyche so effectively. The cataclysmic, metaphor-laden avalanche that sets the entire plot in motion was one of the most enduring images to grace the silver screen in 2014. But it’s not nearly as terrifying or difficult to watch as the film’s emotional climax. FORCE MAJEURE barrels deliriously into those dark places only the Swedes dare to go. I’d be shocked if the inevitable American remake is faithful to this climax.
In a year defined by an enthusiasm for visual novelty; be it variable aspect ratio (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOMMY, etc.), the “uncut” steadicam shot (BIRDMAN), or screen-sharing dopplegangers (ENEMY, THE ONE I LOVE, THE DOUBLE) none look more like an eye-roll-inducing novelty on paper than Steven Knight’s LOCKE. Often misrepresented (usually by those who’ve yet to give it a chance) as “BURIED in a car”, LOCKE prospers, triumphs, and transcends its novelty on the strength not only of Tom Hardy’s electrifying performance (the only actor on screen for 85 breathless minutes) but also Knight’s deceptively intricate screenplay. Knight, the consummate storyteller whose credits range from DIRTY PRETTY THINGS to EASTERN PROMISES to the BBC staple PEAKY BLINDERS, is never satisfied to let the film rest lazily on Hardy’s [broad] shoulders nor those of the “film that takes place completely in a car” conceit. Instead he keeps the camera work slick and dynamic, and ratchets up the tension with mathematic proficiency. Making Hardy’s real-time commute from Birmingham to London; wherein he gets to experience his world crumble around him via speakerphone, a drive for the ages.
7. GONE GIRL
Quite possibly my most anticipated film of 2014- due in equal parts to my respect for incomparable auteur David Fincher, my affection for Gillian Flynn’s barnburner source material, and especially the pitch-perfect casting of comeback prom king Ben Affleck. GONE GIRL had its work cut out for it in meeting my expectations and damned if it didn’t satisfy on ALL fronts. Not so much improving on her own pulpy decadence as deepening the more relevant satirical incisions of her marital indictment, Flynn’s screenplay (which will be likely be studied and repurposed by copycat scribes for decades to come) lays the track for perhaps the greatest domestic thriller since FATAL ATTRACTION. Flynn, Fincher (in his most playful directorial turn since FIGHT CLUB), Affleck, and particularly MVP Rosamund Pike (welcome to the A-list, love) represent something of a creative dream team who raised GONE GIRL beyond its genre confines and turned it into something worthy of the phenomenon it became. Moviegoers ate it up and turned it into the biggest hit of Fincher’s career. Faith in humanity (if not marriage) restored…. For now.
6. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE
There may be no greater champion for the idea of “pure creation” than cinematic alchemist Alejandro Jodorowsky. And while he may not necessarily be a household name on the level of Ozu, Fellini, Kubrick, or Tarkovsky, those that are familiar with his work seem to agree that he may have be one of the most important artists of the 20th century. So in a bit of tragic irony that Jodorowsky spends much of Frank Pavich’s documentary giggling about (at least one of us can), it seems somehow appropriate a film that likely would have made Jodo a household name and cemented his status as one of the cinema’s preeminent visionaries never actually came to pass. The film in question was the original adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune and the aborted attempt to bring it to the screen is the subject of one of the most original and, dare I say it, life-affirming documentaries I’ve ever seen. Narrated by Jodorowsky himself, a man possessed of so much verve the screen can hardly contain him- the film plays out as a series of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes nearly as bizarre and unprecedented as the man delivering them. Ultimately we are left with a sense that Jodorowsky is such a cheerleader for life, love, and the movies that he could never imagine expending one ounce of energy on regret of what might have been when it could be redirecting so much more effectively on gratitude for what is. There may be no bigger flag waver for the pure joy of cinema. And his enthusiasm is positively infectious.
5. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
To say that this truly feels like the movie that Wes Anderson has been building to his entire career is not reactive or melodramatic. Rather, it seems abundantly clear based on the empirical evidence in what’s also quite possibly his most deeply personal film. And I’m certainly not the first person to assert this. Working for the first time in his career without a writing partner, pulling together perhaps the most staggeringly impressive ensemble in his repertory-rich filmography (including token roles for the deepest Hall-Of-Famers Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Jason Schwartzman), and summoning all of his powers of detail-dripping-tableau-sculpting, Anderson decides to go for absolute broke. What he comes up with is a film that, with the benefit of hindsight, may one day be considered his masterpiece. Possessing the misanthropic wit of RUSHMORE, the bittersweet heart of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, the eye-popping flourish of FANTASTIC MR. FOX, and the melancholy nostalgia of MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL feels like an embarrassment of riches and a love letter from Anderson to his faithful fanbase- some of the most devoted in all of cinema, who just knew he had this one in him.
Part Eastern Bloc period piece, part religious mediation, part stoically somber character study- IDA is, in my estimation, the most beautifully shot film of 2014 by an intimidating margin. The spirit of Andrzej Wadja lives on in filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski whose consummate skill as an economic storyteller is matched only by his eye for composition. The first of two films this year to utilize the 1.33 aspect ratio (see #5 on this list for the other), IDA makes compelling case for the longevity of the format. Shot in sumptuous black and white by cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, this is legitimately one of those films in which you could throw a dart at any timecode in the running time and come up with an image ready to be plucked, framed, and hung on the wall. The achingly gorgeous film tells the story of a young nun in 1960s Poland who goes on a quest for answers following a revelation about her past. Pawlikowski manages to say more about human nature, free will, and the power of religion, in a single film than many directors manage to in an entire career. And he does it all in less than 90 minutes.
3. THE ONE I LOVE
To call it a romantic comedy is reductive, to call it a science fiction film is misleading, and to call it some kind of Mumblecore hybrid is condescending to co-star Mark Duplass who clearly has been capable and very effective, appearing in many films unrelated to the subgenre he helped create. But what THE ONE I LOVE is, wholly, irrefutably, above all else, is original. And what a glorious thing it is to use that word and actually mean it. Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a thirty-something married couple dispatched to a secluded Ojai cottage by Ted Danson (step-father of the film’s wunderkind director Charlie McDowell), as a suspiciously cagey psychoanalyst. The goal of the romantic sojourn is to goose the couple out of the marital doldrums that have left them unable to relate to one another. What transpires from here is anything but predictable and though I usually resist the urge to be coy about revealing important plot specifics, anyone who has seen the film already knows the bizarre trajectory it takes and anyone who hasn’t deserves the macabre “where the hell is this all going?” pleasures in store during their first viewing. It’s hilarious, it’s sexy, it’s sad, it’s exciting, it’s endearing. It’s the romantic comedy, science fiction, Mumblecore-inspired, psychosexual thriller we never know we always wanted.
2. UNDER THE SKIN
With 4 films in 6 months (five films if you count late 2013 entry HER and its lingering effects into awards season) it would be difficult for anyone to argue that 2014, the year of her 30th birthday, wasn’t a watershed time for Scarlett Johansson. But even with a slate of interesting roles ranging from CHEF to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, to LUCY, Scarlett’s defining turn of 2014 (perhaps even of her career) came in Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN. Unmoved by wailing infants, icily indifferent to the mores of society, and possessed of a bracingly matter-of-fact approach to nudity, Scarlett achieves legitimate iconic status as she wanders about foggy Scotland in her faux fur, preying on the male fat of the land. Not even so much of sci-fi thriller as it is a densely-packed, metaphorically-layered treatise on femininity, gender politics, and sex crimes, Glazer’s bizarre, grotesque, and beautiful tone poem justifies the nearly fifteen years it took him to bring it to the screen. I can’t decide what has haunted my nightmares more in the months since I first experienced it- the inky visuals in the first “black room” sequence or the chilling screech of Mica Levi’s score that accompanies it. (Shudder)
What more can I really say about WHIPLASH that I haven’t already shouted to virtually anyone within ear shot of me over the last 4 months? It’s been a long time since I’ve been such a vociferously vocal proponent of a single film. And I’m still trying to pin down exactly what it is about this unexpected masterpiece that got to me in such a singular way and has continued to haunt me virtually every day since my first screening of it. Is it the razor sharp, intimidating discipline with which Damien Chazelle’s tight-as-a-drum (hey-yo!) screenplay wraps our emotions and sense of anxiety into a stranglehold? Is it the way in which the central tango between Teller and Simmons (both performances equally career-defining) takes every expectation we’ve ever had about pupil/mentor dynamics and shatters them into a million quivering pieces all over the stage? Or is it that way in which the pitch-perfect ending forces each viewer to turn a mirror on their own relationship to art, self-discipline, professional achievement, and pursuit of perfection? With all due respect to the other 9 films on this list as well as the other hundred or so I saw in the past 12 months, nothing else comes even remotely close in terms of pure, raw, cinematic fireworks. And I’d stand WHIPLASH up against the best films of the last ten years and be very confident it could hold its own. It’s a monster. And I’ll never stop shouting about it.
THE DISSAPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY
EDGE OF TOMORROW
THE LEGO MOVIE
THE TRIP TO ITALY